The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced it plans to “revise” existing, decades-old guidelines for water discharges of toxic metals from fossil fuel-fired power plants, saying a recently concluded EPA study focused mostly on wastewater discharges from coal-fired power plants uncovered elevated levels of toxic pollutants.

The EPA said the study underscored for the agency that existing “effluent limitation guidelines,” or ELGs, recommending limits on discharges from steam electric power plants, first introduced under the Clean Water Act in 1982, have not kept pace with changes that have occurred in the electric power industry.

Despite pollution controls installed to capture air pollution from smokestacks, “some of the equipment used to clean air emissions does so by ‘scrubbing’ the boiler exhaust with water, and when the water is not properly managed it sends the pollution to rivers and other waterbodies,” said the EPA.

“EPA’s decision to revise the current effluent guidelines is largely driven by the high level of toxic-weighted pollutant discharges from coal-fired power plants and the expectation that these discharges will increase significantly in the next few years as new air pollution controls are installed,” said the agency in a statement.

The EPA said that once the new rule for electric power plants is finalized, the agency and states will incorporate the new standards into wastewater discharge permits.

However, while noting the urgency of the situation, the EPA said a rulemaking on the matter would not be forthcoming until 2012.

An official in EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s office told The Energy Daily following the announcement, however, that Jackson is concerned the timeline is too long and will push to find ways to have it shortened.

Environmental groups reacted mostly positively to the EPA’s announcement, but grumbled about the agency’s planned timeline.

“We our very pleased that EPA has taken this initial step,” said Mary Anne Hitt, deputy director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. “However, we had hoped to see some action sooner than 2012. In our opinion, that is not soon enough.”

The announcement comes a day after Sierra Club, the Environmental Integrity Project, and Defenders of Wildlife notified the EPA they intended to file suit against the agency if it fails within 60 days to strengthen limits on waterborne pollutants from coal plants.

Hitt said after the EPA’s announcement that the green coalition will likely reevaluate its planned lawsuit against the agency, but emphasized that “the option is still on the table.”

The Clean Water Act requires the EPA to develop and publish a biennial plan that establishes a schedule for the annual review and revision of national ELGs. The EPA said it last published such a plan in 2006. However, as the agency notes in its newly completed study, “EPA’s most recent revisions to the ELGs . . . were promulgated in 1982.”

According to Sierra Club environmental law fellow Craig Segall, the EPA initially set some limits on discharges from fossil fuel–fired power plants after the Clean Water Act was amended in 1982 to require the EPA to promulgate ELGs. However, he said ELGs have never been promulgated for discharges of coal ash or sludge from flue gas desulfurization, which contain high concentrations of arsenic, selenium, mercury, and lead.

Noting that management of coal combustion by-products is currently not subject to federal standards and instead governed by varying state regulations, Segall said strengthening the standards to cover coal ash and other related by-products would effectively help the EPA close a huge enforcement loophole.

The EPA has issued a preliminary assessment of U.S. coal ash impoundments and is currently working to develop a proposed rule for public comment on the matter by the end of the year.

—Johnathan Rickman (jrickman@accessintel.com) is a reporter for COAL POWER’s sister publication, The Energy Daily.